Human Rights Watch's 2003 country report for Kyrgyzstan stated that China has "reportedly encouraged Kyrgyz officials to use a firm hand with the Uighur minority, and to pursue a series of arrests to quash any manifestation of Uighur separatism or ambitions for self-determination in China's Xinjiang province."
The latest sign that Kyrgyz authorities are pursuing a firm-hand strategy came on January 21, when reports began circulating that an ethnic Uighur, imprisoned on terrorism charges, would be deported from Kyrgyzstan to the Chinese province of Xinjiang, the traditional Uighur homeland. The region has witnessed a steady increase in radical activity in recent years. Human rights organizations have encouraged Central Asian countries to refrain from deporting Uighurs to Xinjiang after three refugees deported by Kazakhstan in 1999 were reportedly executed.
Roughly 50,000 Uighurs are believed to be living in Kyrgyzstan, though unofficial estimates put the number at twice that amount. Many are involved in the so-called shuttle trade with Xinjiang. Such trade occupies an increasingly important role in Kyrgyzstan's economy. Uighurs are a Turkic, Sunni Muslim people, with close cultural and linguistic ties to other ethnic groups in Central Asia, including Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Turkmen.
Since the September 11 terrorism tragedy, Chinese officials have portrayed Uighur radicals in Xinjiang as separatists and terrorists with links to a range of extremist Islamic groups throughout Central Asia. In Bishkek, these charges have found a sympathetic ear. In 2000 and 1999, Kyrgyzstan struggled to contain armed incursions by militants affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). [For background see EurasiaNet Insight archive]. Uighur activists maintain that they are trying to preserve their cultural identity in the face of relentless assimilation pressure from Chinese authorities in Xinjiang.
During a December visit to Beijing by Kyrgyzstan's First Deputy Prime Minister Kurmanbek Osmonov, Chinese Vice Premier Huang Ju lauded recent actions by Bishkek to counter Uighur activists. In November, Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court sanctioned a ban on three Uighur groups -- the Organization for the Liberation of Eastern Turkestan, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party and the Islamic Party of Turkestan.
The connection between Uighur radicals and terrorists has been a recurring theme for Kyrgyz officials. At an August 2003 terrorism conference in Bishkek, Osmonov, who also holds the post of justice minister, said the "problem of Uighur separatism is becoming a bigger concern for Kyrgyzstan." Osmonov and other top security officials alleged that the Uighur separatist organizations -- working in conjunction with the Islamic Party of Turkestan, the IMU's successor group -- sought to destabilize Kyrgyzstan. Uighur community leaders in Kyrgyzstan have demanded that government officials substantiate such allegations.
"There is no extremist Uighur organization in Kyrgyzstan," Tursun Islam, chairman of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, said. "It seems that some politicians and law enforcement bodies in Kyrgyzstan are fulfilling the will and commands of the Chinese security services. It is a favor to the Chinese security services to accuse Uighurs of terrorism and religious extremism."
Kyrgyzstan is not the only Central Asian state to eye Uighurs suspiciously. In Kazakhstan, for example, a recent article in the Kazakhskaya Pravda newspaper characterized Uighurs as separatists and terrorists that pose a "hidden threat" to Kazakhs.
The origins of the Kyrgyz crackdown on Uighurs can be traced to 1996, the year that Kyrgyzstan joined what has become known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive]. One of the group's top priorities is combating security threats posed by regional terrorism. Besides Kyrgyzstan, China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are SCO members.
In recent years, Kyrgyz officials have implicated Uighur radicals in several high-profile crimes. In 1998, a public bus blew up in the southern city of Osh, leading to the arrest of three Uighurs allegedly trained as terrorists in Chechnya. In 2000, the chairman of the Cultural Uighur Council Ittipak was murdered, reportedly for refusing to provide money to finance the Xinjiang separatist effort. Finally, in March 2003, 21 passengers, including 19 Chinese, were killed when an armed group attacked a bus en route from Bishkek to Xinjiang. The Kyrgyz Ministry of the Interior claimed that the perpetrators were two Uighurs who escaped to Turkey.
The SCO is just one of the levers utilized by China to expand its influence in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian nations. In October, Beijing provided over $1 million in direct security assistance to Bishkek, including communications and computer equipment. China also uses trade to increase its regional leverage. Kyrgyzstan receives a large share of its imports from China, and, at one point in the mid-1990s, Kyrgyz leaders feared their market would be overrun by Chinese goods. According to Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov, Kyrgyzstan's trade with China increased by 48 percent between January and November 2003, the Interfax news agency reported.
Chinese economic influence in Kyrgyzstan appears ready to maintain its rapid expansion pace. On December 30, Chinese officials announced a $2.4 million feasibility study to determine if a railway linking China to Western Europe, via Kyrgyzstan, could be built, Chinese media reported. Energy and tourism projects are also in the works. Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev has announced plans for Kyrgyzstan to begin supplying hydroelectric power to China's Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous District, and in May China pledged $15 million for construction of a highway running from Xinjiang to Lake Issyk-Kul, a popular tourist destination in northern Kyrgyzstan.
Bakyt Ibraimov is a freelance journalist based in Bishkek.